The Political Nature of Art

“The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.” 

–Robert Rauschenberg

For nearly two decades I have been bound to the mystic way, and so much of my writing throughout this time, whether in essay form, blog, or poem, has been structured with this as its theme, whether directly stated or not. I seem, ultimately and always, to find myself drawing any work I write to a close with a mystic tone, wherein transcendence is the key idea, a desire to engage readers as individuals who can and should embrace their humanity such as it is and accept the divinity in that humanity. My writing on Art has been no exception to this. But over the last several years I have become increasingly political in my interests, ideas, and tone, and it is with this post that I wish to bring Art and the political together, rather than the mystic. 

Putting aside any and all questions concerning the origin of Art in ritual and communal religious experiences, Art is a political act and statement. I refer to all types of art when I use the term. Art is an exercise in human freedom and expression; it forces an exploration of the limits of our civil rights in the perceived liberal democratic sphere known as the state. Art allows us to engage as citizens in the daunting problems and issues that have plagued the modern nation for centuries, specifically, that of where the nation ends and the citizen begins, and vice versa. Art is a means of questioning ideology and the authority (i.e., institutions) that defends and endorses that ideology. In creating art the artist either further upholds that belief system or subverts it, sometimes he or she does both, whether or not it is in the same work of art. 

Art as a political force is felt in its very nature as a form of human creativity that does battle with the state and its institutions, whether secular or religious, whether openly or discreetly. Art’s continuous goal is to wrest from the state’s institutions the assumption that they have a monopoly on knowledge and the power to dictate how each individual should live and love, think and act, speak and worship. By its very creation, display, and performance, Art puts front and center the inherent rights of the individual as a human and as a citizen to be seen and heard as he or she deems necessary. 

When in service to the state art is limited; as propaganda it is meant to proscribe the people’s thoughts, beliefs, and acts so as to enforce obedience and silence dissent to ensure the state’s survival, which really means the retention of power by the few over and against the many. The stated purpose of government may be one thing, but all forms of authority always have ulterior purposes, and the deeper purpose of government is to circumscribe the power of the individual, specifically, and the people in general. This is because of what I call the “human variable.” By our very nature, human beings are living, breathing forces of chaos; despite the repercussions, any and all individuals have the capability to cause disorder and sew trouble, leading to rebellion and further, revolution. The government seeks to prevent this because it knows that the minds of the masses are malleable, easily suggestible, and so primed to further the cause of any one individual toward overturning the system at the sociocultural level, and essentially, in the long run, the political. It is, simply, always a question of power: Who has it? How does one achieve it? And how does one retain it? 

The mass media is the most productive form of “art” in this manner, and without necessarily being propagandistic for the most part, in that it keeps the majority of the people interested in the fictions of other times, places, and peoples, as well as dumbed down by the horrendous, vulgar fiction of what is called reality TV, and thereby distracted from the larger problems and conditions the government and corporate-owned media hopes the masses won’t think to question or contemplate. In all good conscience I can no longer call film and television art; there are still certainly brilliant, artistic works of storytelling that one can find in both mediums, but they are quite rare, few and far between. For decades now these two once praiseworthy creative forms no longer have the value they used to; they pander too much, and an overwhelming majority of the time, to the lowest common denominator, reinforcing the stupidity of the mass public and its inability to take in and comprehend educational information because it lacks entertainment value. The people do not want to be educated; they want to be entertained twenty-four hours a day, and their minds kept as far away from their problems as possible because they do not have the mental and emotional fortitude to confront and resolve them. 

True art is transformative; it leaves an impact on the culture for generations, and not just on the world of art itself. True art is central to the human quest for answers as to who we are and why we exist. Art forces us to look in the mirror it holds up and see our real faces. Art seeks to make us come to grips with the complexity of the self and its condition; we are beautiful beings of divine light as well as ugly, vicious, self-serving beasts. At any given time Art endeavors to take the temperature of the sociocultural as well as political landscape and climate and offer a response to it, revealing the complicated nature of our dilemma in the specific situation under consideration. 

True art is subversive; it always questions, and if it delivers answers, they are never easy to swallow. The greatest service Art can do is to shatter the illusions and dream world we constantly live in, both at our own hands and those of others, especially the one coordinated by the powers that be. Art is the greatest form of dissent, thus the strongest and most revolutionary tool of a well-informed, well-educated democratic polity.

Art invites its spectators to engage in the most fundamental of life’s queries and insoluble conundrums, all of which are born of the notion of what it means to be human, what it means to live in relation to others, whether they are like us or not (culture and community), what it means to be a citizen in the larger society (civil rights and the power inherent within those rights), what it means to be “civilized,” and what it means to be, as an individual a mere step, and as a species a finite movement, in the great dance of the ever-dynamic, forever-inscrutable universe. 

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